I love chase scenes. I love watching them in movies, I love seeing them on TV, I love reading about them in books, and I love running them in RPGs. There is, however, a problem:
I am a writer, not a movie director or a TV showrunner, and chases are goddamned hard to make work in fiction. The act of description (of showing not telling) runs at odds to the pacing of a good chase. You want the chase to rocket from one moment to the next, you want the reader on the edge of their seat as the chasers/chasees teeter ever closer to disaster as they veer in and around the obstacles set in their path, be they pedestrians, ancient Roman pillars, cliffs, or what-have-you, but describing that in sufficient detail becomes a very delicate balance. Not enough and the reader can’t see what you are trying to convey and too much means the whole things slows down.
I’ve been trying to think of chases in books that work the same way that scene from Bullit does or the ones in any given Fast and the Furious movie. Hell, even the foot chases from The French Connection or Casino Royale would be acceptable. I’m having trouble thinking of one, honestly. There’s the pizza delivery scene in Snow Crash, which is cool (but not really a chase) and Hiro Vs Raven on cyber-cycles (which is okay). There’s some stuff in Tolkien, but Tolkien is anything but an ‘edge of your seat’ writer.
Maybe I’ve struck upon something here. Maybe I just don’t read enough of the right genres for these things to pop up consistently. In any event, I’m going to keep trying to figure out the chase and put it in my writing. ‘Edge of the Seat’ is sort of my fiction-writing mantra in many of my projects, and the chase is a key element of any good suspenseful storyline, I think. Chasing and being chased is an ancient and instinctual activity. We dream about it constantly; the thought of the hounds at your heels, baying into the night with the scent of blood in their nostrils, is the stuff adrenaline surges are made of. The fight or flight response is some healthy, powerful dramatic material that needs dredging from time to time. The ‘Fight’ part is well-established in fiction, but where would it be without the flight? Without that sensation of chasing down your enemy, stretching your fingers out to seize his traitorous throat, only to feel your fingertips graze only the hem of his jacket?
I think there’s a little bit of poetry in action scenes, be they chases or otherwise. Good writers need to embrace that balance of economy of diction with properly evocative turns of phrase in order to elicit dramatic effect. It’s damned hard work, but rewarding if you get it right.
Or, at least, I presume so. I’ll let you know when I feel I’ve gotten it right.
Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ’life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ’something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.
This is going to be a half gaming, half storytelling post, so you’ve been warned.
I like mazes and puzzles. When I saw The Goonies when I was a kid, that treasure hunt through the caves of One Eyed Willie was my idea of boyhood paradise. I searched the islands near my house for secret passages, cryptic messages, and buried treasure. All I ever found was a curiously discarded park bench on an island otherwise completely given over to seagulls and poison ivy.
When started playing D&D (well, running D&D. I’ve run far, faaar more games than I’ve ever played in), I used to devise elaborate mazes just like the caves and labyrinths of the old RPGs on my NES. I thought it would be fun, to have players sneak around in those mazes, hunt down bad guys and treasure, and avoid the occasional tripwire, deadfall trap, or poison dart corridor. It wasn’t.
Actually, it was deadly boring for everyone but me. I traced the players along on my secret map, and they were barraged with endless questions like “left, right, or straight?” or “there is a stairway up and a stairway down–which way?” There would be the occasional monster to deal with, but outside of that, my players were really tired of that nonsense by the time they got to the end of the campaign. Hell, they still give me crap about it to this day, and this game ran a full twenty years ago when me and my childhood friends were in 7th and 8th grades.
Still, though, I was fascinated with the idea of labyrinths and puzzles in stories and in games. Movies like Labyrinth and fantasy series like The Death’s Gate Cycle kept me interested. How, though, could you incorporate the satisfaction of solving a puzzle without slogging through the tedium of wandering up and down corridors? You can, of course, create linear dungeons and such (room after room, in sequence, each with a different challenge), but while that ensures the fun of solving a puzzle, it removes that sense of discovery one gets when you pull back a secret passage or make your way around that last corner. In stories, this effect is easier to simulate, but the labyrinth is necessarily reduced to operating at whatever speed the plot insists, and the protagonist(s) find his or her way through and encounter each obstacle at predetermined points, though with the illusion of being ’lost’ woven around them.
Is this, then, the only solution for the labyrinth? Is wandering corridors and getting stuck in loops until, suddenly, that moment of epiphany pulls you through–is all that merely the province of video games, never to make the transition into pen-and-paper RPGs or fiction?
Well, no, it isn’t, but to do otherwise requires the assistance of your players/audience. If you are GM-ing for a bunch of PCs who will never bother to figure out ‘where the thrush knocks’ and, instead, blunders forward slaying goblins until the entrance to Smaug’s lair is made evident to them, that moment of discovery is forever denied them. They don’t want or need that moment; they’d rather it be figured out for them. Likewise with your readers: if they won’t bother trying to figure out who killed Mr. Ratchett or why a stag appears as Harry’s patronus and are just waiting around to be told, there’s nothing you can do to make them wonder. Lay out as many clues as you like, hang as many of Chekov’s guns on the wall as possible, and they still won’t notice. There’s nothing to be done here without collaboration.
If, however, you can make the stakes clear and the rewards compelling enough – if you can fire their curiosity – why then there isn’t a labyrinth they won’t try to unravel, no clue they will fail to track down, and they will do it all with a smile on their face. In this sense, whether GMing a game for a bunch of your friends or writing a story for a larger audience, you need to meet them halfway. You need to give them something to hang on to in order to get them through that maze. Kidnap their kid brother, threaten to burn down their house, or steal their very souls away. That way, if done right, they will enjoy the journey as much as the destination.
The journey is a sacred trope in the fantasy genre. It dates all the way back to the Odyssey, or perhaps even earlier – the hero’s journey as mirrored in their physical traverse across the hills and dales of their world. Where would fantasy and science fiction be without Frodo’s quest into Mordor, Taran’s quest for the Black Cauldron, Paul Muad’Dib’s journey into the deserts of Arrakis, and so on and so forth?
The hero’s journey, be it quest or ordeal, mirrors something essential in each of us. The metaphor for life here is implicit – hell, occasionally it’s explicit. With every step, we change. Not so many journeys end precisely where you expect them to. As Bilbo once said:
It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
When we’re young, especially, this journey seems large and imposing. As we grow older, it changes – our journeys still seem long, but less terrifying. Mystery overcomes majesty; we get lost within our own lives, searching for that magical trinket that got us out here in the first place. Maybe we find it, maybe we don’t. In the end it hardly matters.
I’m in the midst of writing a sequel to a novel I haven’t even published yet. It’s perhaps foolish of me, a waste of my time. Yet I cannot help it; Tyvian Reldamar’s story speaks to me on many levels. Alandar occupies such a defined shape in my mind, it is as though I have lived there. How could I not want Tyvian to wander its wagon-rutted roads and gleaming spirit engine tracks, pondering the possibility and necessity of his own redemption? So, I have spent the past 100 pages guiding him across the fractured counties of Eretheria, hatching his plans and keeping ahead of his responsibilities, his friends in tow. His journey is one that asks just how long can we skate through life before deciding to make a stand. Before deciding that something does matter to us and that something in this world is important enough to fight for.
That’s not all it is, though. No journey is so single-minded, just as no college road-trip is ever really about where you’re going. It’s about the friends you take with you, the stories you tell, the secrets you keep among yourselves, and the way you change your perspective on things. To watch Frodo get worn down by the weight of the One Ring is to also watch Sam rise up and grow strong. Conan’s quest for greatness is eclipsed by his longer, more difficult quest for wisdom and understanding. It does not come with the crown of Aquilonia, nor with the loss of that same crown. It comes in the small places, in the quiet moments. It is not in the achievement, but in the struggle.
This, too, can be said of my own journey. This novel I write, the stories I publish, the queries I send – this is the time of growth, of change. This is where it counts. All of us have such journeys, and we must make them. Step out that door; see where you are swept.
Lately I’ve been trying out a variety of contemporary sci-fi authors that deal with various aspects of the Singularity. I think it’s sad to admit, but I have yet to be able to finish one. The last one I tried was Charles Stross Accelerando, a book which I recommend you do not read unless you find long strings of technobabble to be as hip and cool as Stross seems to. My current battle is with David Brin’s Existence, bought when I heard an interview with him online in which he had a discussion about the future of humanity that I found intriguing. I read the description of the book and it also sounded interesting. It is interesting. So was Stross, honestly. So what was the problem?
None of these books seem to have characters. If they do have characters, the characters exist primarily as mouthpieces by which the author can convey all the interesting thoughts they have and that they speak about at length in NPR interviews. The thing is, though, that such discussions, while interesting, do not make for a good story. At least, they don’t for me.
A story is about a person or, more rarely, as small group of people. They can live in as bizarre a universe as you please, but ultimately I, the reader, am interested in them only insofar as I am emotionally compelled by their conflict. The emphasis there is on their conflict – as in the character(s), individually. I am not really motivated by the plight of humanity in general. Am I interested? Sure. Believe me, I have many of thoughts about this myself, but I know that I can’t just write a novel that does nothing but talk about humanity at large without weaving such a discussion into the idiosyncratic problems of a specific individual. To do otherwise makes your novel didactic, preachy, evangelical. It wears on me when I feel that I’m reading a book that’s trying to do nothing more than engage me in debate. If I wanted that, I’d read non-fiction or attend conferences. When I’m reading a novel, I expect entertainment. I expect a protagonist with a problem I want to see resolved, not a series of placeholder people meant to do nothing more than paint a picture of what they think humanity is/will be like.
Now, this doesn’t mean I object to stories with defined and discernible points or arguments to be made (I prefer these to the completely ‘pointless’ stories that populate fantasy and scifi), but it does mean I expect your message to be a little more subtle. If I’m reading a book with a rotating cast of 6 main characters, none of whom have anything clearly to do with one another, and all of them apparently present to act as expository mouthpieces for your new universe, I am going to get frustrated. I am not reading speculative fiction for ‘slice of life’ scenes in imaginary worlds; I’m reading it for the exploration of character and conflict in unusual circumstances. This connects, if indirectly, to my frustration with certain long-running fantasy series (The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.) that have decided to put an emphasis on a persistent world rather than on the resolution of conflict. There is only so long I am going to wait for catharsis/denouement before I get bored, no matter how fascinating the subject matter of the fantasy/scifi world. If I suspect that there is no catharsis to be had because there is no dramatic tension to be released (because there are no characters that I am attached to or interested in), I am going to put the book down. If, however, you keep all that stuff in there and weave your issues into that conflict with a degree of subtlety, then you’ve just written a pretty damned incredible book.
Of course, I’m just one guy talking, here. I suppose there are a lot of folks (particularly in scifi) who really love those stories where all they really do is watch the world turn according to the author’s whim and various characters just kind of pop in and out. Come to think of it, I can think of authors who did this fairly well (Asimov and Clarke chief among them), but in all of those instances the plight of the hero was still central to the plot, no matter if the author was less interested in that plot than in the themes they were exploring. Anyway, I’m still fighting with Existence and, to its credit, it’s starting to improve a bit. If I have to keep sitting through radio talk-shows in the novel or attend conferences and actually listen to the speeches the guys are making, I don’t know if I’m making it through. If you wanted to publish a lecture series, Mr. Brin, you could just do that. I’d read it. Just don’t dress it up like an adventure story and expect me to applaud.
Dusk born and dawn dead,
Crown of Stars about their head.
Young as dewdrops, old as Stone.
Clad in Whispers, Speak in Silk,
Seek them not, nor all their ilk.
Wand’ring Kyklos, where no man tread,
With the shades and restless dead.
Dancing they on darkest moon
to ancient words and madman’s tune,
Carry silver, holly, purest lye
and Skie revels shall pass you by.
I’ve begun developing a new fantasy world, inspired by a story I wrote called “Dreamflight of the Katatha”, which will be published in Deepwood Publishing’s Ways of Magic Anthology. The place is called Nyxos, and it is inspired by a mixture of Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Celtic cultures. Unlike Alandar, which is more gritty and realistic (and more ‘modern’), the idea of Nyxos is to be mythic, ancient, and dreamlike. It’s in the very early planning stages, but the above is a verse description of one of the ‘creatures’ roaming the lands beyond the ‘civilizing’ influence of the Oneirarch. Of note, most of what people know in Nyxos is based off verse and song – almost no one can read or write. Anyway, thought I’d share it, and I hope you like it.
As a writer, there is an inherent risk in reading. It’s a risk you must take, of course, and risk you couldn’t avoid taking anyway, since all writers start as readers and remain such. The risk is reading a novel (or story or poem or screenplay or whatever) that you simultaneously love and realize that you, yourself, could never ever write it yourself. It is a moment that is both inspiring and disheartening; you see, with a clarity that is often unobtainable, the sheer heights you must scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with your would-be peers. If you’re like me, a book like that can put you in a writing tailspin for a week or more as you try to parse out how the author did it and what the magnitude of their achievement means for your own work.
There are a couple authors who do that to me. Ursula K LeGuin, for instance, has an easy, elegant prose style that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Margaret Atwood builds characters so real that it seems impossible that they don’t truly exist. Most consistently in my adulthood, though, the single author that has managed to flabbergast me most often has been, without a doubt, Neal Stephenson.
Now, I don’t intend to make this post all gushy and fanboyish, because in all honestly I am not a gusher or a fanboy over Mr. Stephenson. His books, as impressive as they are, aren’t flawless paradigms of narrative prose. They sometimes have pacing issues, sometimes they seem to end at odd points, and there are moments where Stephenson’s hyper-cool style lead the plot on tangents that, while fun, also seem to dilute the narrative power of the work. That said, they are still a million times better than anything I am likely to write, so who cares what I think?
The feeling you get reading a Stephenson novel is that you are in the hands of a storyteller both infinitely hip and monumentally intelligent. He manages to make Sumerian myth gel with futuristic motorcycle races all while actually educating you about the basic framework of computer science. If the purpose of reading fiction is to be transported into other places and other lives, reading a book like Cryptonomicon or The Confusion is like buying a ticket on Magellan’s first cruise round the world – it might take you years to complete, but oh the places you’ll go! The sheer density of information is overwhelming; the tangents glow as brightly as the main storyline, the secondary characters evoke your senses as much as the protagonist until, eventually, you have difficulty telling whose story this is and what it’s about. Weirdly, amazingly enough, though, you don’t care.
I’ve read five of Stephenson’s books; I find myself constantly recommending them to people. They baffle me at the same time as they impress me. How is this possible? How can a five-hundred page book that goes on innumerable tangents and deals with a half-dozen seemingly unconnected characters still be fun on every single page? How (and why) does he condense so much information about the real world into a single volume, even when very little of it seems essential to the plot? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.
My Technology in Literature class is about to embark upon Snow Crash, Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic. Though they are bemoaning its great length, I know they’ll love it anyway (even if they don’t finish it). This will be my fourth or fifth time reading the book, and each time I’ve been able to unpack more and more of the dense story and apply it to a kind of thematic framework. It’s fascinating and so unlike so much other science fiction out there. What have I learned from it as a writer? Well, a lot of different things; a lot about how to weave humor into narrative, a lot about how to manipulate style to reflect character voice without speaking first person, a lot about how to show rather than tell. Most importantly, though, is this central lesson:
I will never write a book like Neal Stephenson does, and that is okay. That, ultimately, is the point. Neither I nor anybody else should tear themselves down over the achievements of another writer, because this isn’t ultimately a competition. We are joining a conversation in which writers like Neal Stephenson are part. Should we bring our A-game? Hell yes, but even more important than bringing our A-game, we should also remember to bring ourselves. So be like Stephenson; be your own original.